The Lion & the Ox and the Law

One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression. — William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.


Aion — Mithraic Symbol

Some people take particular offence at Blake’s assertion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “one law for the lion & the ox is oppression”. The statement concludes one of Blake’s “memorable fancies” in which he witnesses a debate between a Devil and an Angel over the merits of Jesus. Ironically, it is the Devil who extolls the virtues of Jesus and the Angel who comes close to negating them. Caught up in his own self-contradiction the Angel, subsequently, was consumed in “a flame of fire” and resurrected as a “devil” himself.

In Blake’s visions, it is invariably the “angels” who are the most deluded of all supernal entitites.

Those who begin to approach Blake may find this apparent “elitism” troubling. Blake went so far as to depict Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon and generally lauded as the first law-giver, as an ox feeding on grass in many of his illustrations, including the one used in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,


Nebuchadnezzar as an ox feeding on grass

Nonetheless, understanding what Blake means by “one law for the lion & the ox is oppression” is also one of the keys to understanding Blake. And it is more than likely that Blake equated his law-giver, Nebuchadnezzar, with his demented and tormented Zoa Urizen —  the demiurgos who is the “Ancient of Days” and who, as the god Jehovah, is the false God with his cruel Book of Iron Laws. The “devils” in Blake’s lore and symbolism are the form of those who have always resisted and opposed the demiurgos and the dominion of Urizen. And so you have this irony in his Memorable Fancy from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that it is a devil that honours Jesus far more than the angel, and why Blake, who also opposes and resists the dominion of Urizen, prefers to consort with devils rather than angels, for in many of Blake’s “memorable fancies” the angels are deceivers whose weapons are merely “Aristotle’s Analytics”.

William Blake: Urizen -- Ancient of Days

William Blake: Urizen — Ancient of Days

Blake is indeed “devilish” in that sense, also — a visionary, a radical, a rebel, a revolutionary — who sees in “bricks of religion” and “stones of the law” the handiwork of the mad Zoa he calls Urizen, one of the aspects of the disintegrate or fallen Adam. Blake was a vocal foe of the father of modern Conservatism, Edmund Burke, as well as being the “prophet against Empire” and opposed to the monarchy. He was a foe of all ideology more generally. And he is so thoroughly contrary to the prevailing views and “common sense” of our times — all of which he considered deeply delusional — that he is still either totally misunderstood, misrepresented, or otherwise considered a lunatic.

But the evidence of this delusion is not hard to see. The evidence lies in the fact that so many have mistaken Blake’s portrait of the “Ancient of Days” — the deranged Zoa Urizen — as a portrait of “God” rather than the very thing Blake was in complete rebellion against — the Empire and the Dominion of Urizen. Here, for example, is the front entrance to the General Electric building in New York that takes Blake’s “Ancient of Days” as its theme,

File:GE Building entrance.jpg

One is almost tempted to say “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And whether the name “Urizen” is a contraction of “Your Reason” or “Universal Reason” (both interpretations are possible) in the sense of “rationality”, it is nonetheless true that Blake did not consider the ruling deity of the last 6,000 years to be authentic. In that sense, then, Nebuchadnezzar participates in the same persistent delusion as Isaac Newton, John Locke or Edmund Burke.  (And in that sense, too, Blake excels even Nietzsche, who believed that the contemporary delusion was merely the work of the last 2,000 years of error alone).

The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell. For the cherub with his flaming sword is hereby commanded to leave his guard at the tree of life, and when he does, the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy whereas it now appears finite & corrupt.
This will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.
But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narow chinks of his cavern. — Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Although somewhat cryptic, it is not indecipherable. Whether Blake actually believed the world was only 6,000 years old isn’t entirely clear. There are other passages which suggest he considered the earth far older, and that by “6,000 years” he means the present world age. If so, this 6,000 years would correspond to the Hindu “Kali Yuga“, or the last and most degenerated of the four stages of the cycle of the yugas or ages, and which is indeed presently approaching its endgame in calendar terms — the lowest descent or nadir of the cycle. In those terms, it would mean, equivalently, that the next or ascending stage of the cycle would be in process of preparation or formation now — as the incipient presence of the future. That latent or incipient presence of the future in process of manifestation or epiphanisation is something the cultural philosopher Jean Gebser also shares with William Blake, which Gebser calls the “irruption” of “integral consciousness”.

Here, for the moment, we need to focus on the significance of Blake’s apparent repudiation of the principle of universal equality, which bothers those inclined towards the ideals of the universality of liberal democracy. Blake was, nonetheless, as opposed to the liberalism of a John Locke as he was to the conservatism of Edmund Burke (sensibly, as he saw delusion everywhere). Still, it seems on the surface difficult to reconcile with his active participation in revolutionary and republican circles and in his association with the revolutionist Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man (1791), whose life Blake providentially saved at one time.

But given Blake’s enlarged and flexible senses, it is very likely that Blake saw in the revolutionary turmoils of his time the first stirrings of the repressed and oppressed primordial man — the awakening of “Albion” from millennia and eons of stony sleep, and the loosening of Urizen’s iron grip on the soul of mankind. If he was disappointed and even horrified with the outcome, that doesn’t negate the value of his perception in that respect. His insight into the forces and passions at work in the psyche was essentially true, even if he could not foresee the course they would take. He was a prophet, not a fortune-teller. He saw in the upheavals of his age a revelation of eternity irrupting within the matrix of time.

Blake’s disdain for the conservative’s “natural order of things” as well as liberalism’s “universal equality” arises from the same sensibility. Both are but two branches of the same root delusion and deception, and both lead, invariably, to the same place — the Machine, an image of society as a “natural order” or as an aggregation and sum of equally interchangeable parts and components, none having any more significance than any other part. Both end in “System”, as distant psychologically from a true spiritual order as can be reached.

“One law for the lion & the ox is oppression” is reflected in another of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” which runs “The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow”. There is, here, no condescension, no “equivalence” of the eagle and the crow. The caw of the law. Eagle and crow are not interchangeable units even though one can generalise both as “birds”. And that is liberalism’s error, as far as Blake is concerned — generalisation.

The fuller meaning of Blake’s antipathy towards “law” and legality — whether secular or moral — is also represented in the Buddha’s parable of the raft. The raft is the dharma as well as karma — the law of action and reaction. Once one has crossed the river, which is the flux of time, to the other side, what further need has one of the raft? The Buddha asks, quite sensibly — are you going to carry that heavy raft on your back? Are you planning on returning to the other side — to samsara and to the domain of delusion? Likewise, Jesus speaks of his “yoke”: “For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light”. The teachings are the yoke and the light. But once one has achieved the light, one can cast off the yoke. The yoke of Jesus, and the raft of Buddha are the same law.

Ideally, then, all vital law (secular or moral, “natural” or “universal”) would be conceived and implemented in a way that would lead us from ignorance into self-realisation, from the state of delusion into enlightenment, from a condition of dis-memberment into re-membrance, and from disintegration into integrity or, in Blake’s terms, from “the finite & corrupt” into “a perception of the infinite”. Blake’s condemnation of the law, secular or moral, is because it does not perform this task: “Prisons are built with stones of Law; Brothels with bricks of Religion”. The law, both secular and moral, is for power and control, and not as guidance towards emancipation and self-realisation.

That’s the key here. The Lion is the emancipated soul, no longer the camel or the ox which still needs the yoke, even if the yoke is light or a yoke of light. The distinction was equally represented in Nietzsche’s “three metamorphoses of the spirit” from camel, to lion, and finally to child (which Nietzsche lifted almost directly from Rumi, who had a greater acquaintance with “camels” than Nietzsche ever did).

For Blake, all law, whether secular or religious, is pernicious law when it does not serve to guide the human spirit out of the state of nature or the mere “natural order of things” or, conversely, regards human beings as equivalent interchangeable units all equally impotent in their mutual solitudes — as “cogs in the machine”, as “grist for the mill”, or as “productive forces” and so on. Blake’s concern is the liberation of the spirit from such debased conditions of existence in which he believes no true self-realisation — no free development of the personality — is really possible: the land he calls the dark wilderness of “Ulro” and the Shadowlands.

In that sense, Blake is well beyond the dualisms of “left” and “right” or “liberal” and “conservative”, all of which he finds deficient and not leading to a true emancipation of the spirit from amalgamate false natures and thorough debasement. It truly is a “democratic” conception of society, but unlike anything we presently know or call by that name.


3 responses to “The Lion & the Ox and the Law”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    “The Lion is the emancipated soul, no longer the camel or the ox which still needs the yoke, even if the yoke is light or a yoke of light.”

    A very worthy and illuminating undertaking to discuss the meaning of “One law for the lion and ox is oppression.” I could not understand what Blake had meant by it.

    “To create itself freedom, and given a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion.” – Nietzsche’s “the metamorphoses of spirit.

    A very insightful statement by Nietzsche. Indeed, to create itself freedom, indeed there is a need of a lion.

    I always enjoy seeing Blake draw man/woman so integral part of the environment in the fore and background.

  2. dkskr says :

    I suspect Blake is simply being dishonest. The nature of the devil is to lie, and I think what we see in the Marriage is incredibly sophisticated lies about human nature and the heart. That’s my intuition, anyway.

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